Updated: Feb 4, 2021
If you want to get a parent or teacher riled up, talk about schools opening and closing and virtual vs. in-person learning. Unlike those debates, almost everyone agrees that our nation’s schools are in disrepair and could use some serious retrofitting and smart energy investment.
Public schools are 40+ years old on average and have needed infrastructure investments for a long time. A big part of revitalizing these schools is energy efficiency. In fact, the federal Government Accountability Office said that one-third, or 36,000 schools need Heating, Ventilation and Air Conditioning (HVAC) upgrades.
These energy-wasting schools span the entire country. The same report says that 41% of U.S. school districts need to update or replace the HVAC systems in at least half of their schools.
One positive aspect of delaying our national HVAC school investments is that there have been recent cost and technological advances in solar energy, energy efficiency, and building management. That means that America's schools can benefit even more from today's upgrades compared to a decade ago.
With 2021 seeing a new presidential administration with a climate change agenda, these coming months may be the ‘golden semester’ for the upgrades. With national policy initiatives in combination with less-than-normal occupancy, incentive programs, school resiliency objectives, pandemic-related upgrades, and the economy of scale of combining upgrades, now is the time to start school energy retrofitting projects.
Let’s start with HVAC
First off, let’s talk about the work that must be done to make schools safe. In order to minimize the spread of COVID, schools need up-to-date ventilation systems to ensure proper airflow. Getting the contractor out to the site is one of the hardest parts, so why not update the Heating, Ventilation AND Air Conditioning all at the same time?
Air conditioners from the 1970s regularly use twice as much energy as a modern air conditioner to produce the same amount of cooling. During our customer installations, we’ve seen HVAC units that are way more inefficient than even that--and fail to keep occupants comfortable.
Adding load flexibility software can also prevent other energy mistakes from ever happening with zero staff time. I’ve spent lots of time looking at load profiles and found that most schools turn on ALL the HVAC units on at around 7 am. This sets a costly demand peak and is completely unnecessary. The good news is that intelligent load controls can prevent these mistakes, potentially saving thousands of dollars in energy costs.
Policies, big and small. Did someone say infrastructure?
Nationally, the Biden-Harris administration is taking climate seriously and will integrate efficiency, resilience, and equity (underfunded public schools!) into their infrastructure plan.
In California, where my own kid will start school next fall, Governor Newsom just signed AB 841 into law in September. This directs unspent Investor Owned Utility collected funds for energy efficiency to create a grant program for schools to repair and replace HVAC systems. This prioritizes low-income schools, stimulates job creation, and protects kids from wildfire smoke, vehicle pollution, and COVID.
More specifically, the “School Reopening Ventilation and Energy Efficiency Verification and Repair Program will provide grants to local educational agencies to reopen schools with functional ventilation systems that are tested, adjusted, and, if necessary or cost-effective, repaired, upgraded or replaced to increase efficiency and performance.”
On an even more local level, Silicon Valley Clean Energy, a local Bay Area Community Choice Aggregator, is prioritizing healthy, resilient schools and recently funded a pilot project to demonstrate the value of load flexibility in solar-equipped schools.
Investment from federal, state, and local levels plus this army of skilled HVAC technicians can not only make schools safer but can also save schools tons of money on their electricity bills for decades to come.
Let’s show our kids what fighting climate change looks like
Yes, we have lots of things to worry about. I know, HVAC isn’t thrilling. But it matters. Let’s use this window of opportunity to show what fighting climate change looks like and take this opportunity to upgrade schools—open or closed! We already agree on it. Once it's done and our kids are back in their properly ventilated, solar-powered, grid friendly, energy efficient classrooms, we can sing ‘It’s fun to stay at the Y-M-C-A, with a working H-V-A-C….’
At a time of great upheaval of everything normal in our life, why send our kids back to stuffy, outbreak-friendly, fossil-fuel-powered, energy-inefficient classrooms?
I’m grateful to my family member and children’s book author, Molly Bang, for illustrating the choice for us. Which of these do you want to send your kids to?
The choice is clear. So what are we waiting for? Share this blog post with your principal or school district. If you're in California, let your district board know about AB 841's grant money that can upgrade their HVAC systems--and make them smarter.